Battle of Thermopylae
In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states, called the Hellenic League, fought the invading Persian army in a mountain pass. Though vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the Persian advance in order to buy time for the evacuation of Athens and the preparation of a greater Greek fighting force. Leonidas, the Spartan King commanding the army, held up the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. Its loss gave the Persians control as far as the isthmus of Corinth, and the opportunity to sack Athens. However they were later defeated at the battles of Salamis and Plataea, ending their invasion of Greece.
Xerxes I, king of Persia, had been preparing for years to continue the war against the Greeks started by his father Darius. In 484 BC the army and navy of Xerxes arrived in Asia Minor and built a bridge of ships across the Hellespont at Abydos to march his troops across. According to Herodotus, Xerxes had over five million men, while the poet Simonides estimated three million; Herodotus also wrote that the army drank entire rivers and ate the food supplies of entire cities. While these may be exaggerations, it is clear the Greeks were enormously outnumbered.
A confederate alliance of Greek city-states was quickly formed, headed by the militaristic Sparta, whose supremely disciplined warriors were trained from birth to be the best soldiers in the ancient world. The Greek states held back from sending the full force of their armies, however, citing religious reasons. Fearing an uprising of their huge slave population, and fearful of going to war before the conclusion of the Carneia festival, the deeply superstitious Spartans contributed only a small force of 300 hoplites, hand-picked and commanded by King Leonidas. The loyalty of Thebans to the Greek alliance was questioned by others, and so Leonidas insisted that a contingent of Thebans lead by Leontiades the son of Eurymachos join the small allied army (Herodotus_VII:205).
Knowing the likely outcome of the battle, Leonidas selected his men on one simple criterion: he took only men who had fathered sons that were old enough to take over the family responsibilities of their fathers. The rationale behind this criterion was that the Spartans knew their death was almost certain at Thermopylae. Plutarch mentions, in his Sayings of Spartan Women, that after encouraging her husband before his departure for the battle field, Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas I asked him what she should do when he had left. To this, Leonidas replied:
- Marry a good man, and have good children.
Because of its defensible terrain, the mountain pass of Thermopylae, the "Hot Gates," was chosen as the site of battle. At the time it consisted of a pass so narrow two chariots could barely move abreast—one side stood the sheer side of the mountain, while the other was a cliff drop into the sea. Along the path was a series of three "gates," and at the center gate a short wall was hastily erected by the Greek army to aid in their defense. It was here in the August of 480 BC that an army of some 7000 Greeks, led by 300 Spartans, stood to receive the full force of the Persian army, numbering perhaps some forty times its size.
When scouts initially informed Xerxes of the size of the Greek force, and of the Spartans who were performing preparations which included naked calisthenics and combing their hair, Xerxes found the reports laughable. Not understanding the ritual significance of the Spartan preparations as the actions of men with the resolution to fight to the end, he expected the force to disband at any moment and waited four days for the Greek force to retreat. When they did not, he became increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as foolish impudence on the part of the small Greek force, and on the fifth day Xerxes ordered his troops into the pass.
The Greeks deployed themselves in a phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints, spanning the entire width of the pass. The Persians, armed with arrows and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the Greek phalanx, nor were their lightly armoured men a match for the superior armour and weaponry of the better trained hoplites. Enormous casualties were sustained by the Persians as the disciplined Spartans orchestrated a series of feint retreats, followed by a quick turn back into formation. Because of the terrain, the Persians were unable to surround or flank the Greeks, thus rendering their superior numbers almost useless. Greek morale was high. Herodotus wrote that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows blotted out the sun, he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." The Greeks defending the pass slew the Persians in a similar manner on the second day of battle, fighting in a relay manner. After watching his troops fall before the Greeks, Xerxes decided to send his legendary Persian Immortals. However, even the Immortals lacked the power to break the Spartan phalanx and they were forced to retreat with heavy casualties.
After the second day of fighting, a Greek, Ephialtes, defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes of a separate path through Thermopylae, which the Persians could use to outflank the Greeks. The pass was defended by the other 1000 Greeks, from Phocis, who had been placed there when the Greeks learned of the alternate route just before the battle, but they were not expecting to engage the Persians. Surprised by the Persian attack, the Phocians offered only a brief resistance before retreating higher up the mountain to regroup. Instead of pursuing them, however, the Persians simply advanced through the pass unopposed.
Leonidas realized that further fighting would be futile. On August 11 he dismissed the Greek force, except the surviving Spartans, who had already resigned themselves to fighting to the death, and the Thebans who he kept as hostages (Herodotus_VII:222). However, a contingent of about 600 Thespians, led by Demophilus, refused to leave with the other Greeks. Instead, they chose to stay in the suicidal effort to delay the advance. The significance of the Thespians' refusal should not be passed over. The Spartans, brave as their sacrifice indubitably was, were professional soldiers, trained from birth to be ready to give their lives in combat as Spartan law dictated. Conversely, the Thespians were citizen-soldiers (Demophilus, for example, made his living as an architect) who elected to add whatever they could to the fight, rather than allow the Spartans to be annihilated alone. Though their bravery is often overlooked by history, it was most certainly not overlooked by the Spartans, who are said to have exchanged cloaks with the Thespians and promised to be allies for eternity.
The fighting was said to have been extremely brutal, even for hoplite combat. As their numbers diminished the Greeks retreated to a small hill in the narrowest part of the pass. The Thebans took this opportunity to surrender to the Persians (Herodotus_VII:223). After their spears broke, the Spartans and Thespians kept fighting with their short swords, and after those broke, they were said to have fought with their bare hands and teeth. Although the Greeks killed many Persians, including two of Xerxes' brothers, Leonidas was eventually killed, but rather than surrender, the Spartans fought fanatically to defend his body. To avoid losing any more men the Persians killed the last of the Spartans with flights of arrows.
When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers, ordered that the head be cut off, and the body crucified. The mutilation of a corpse, even one of the enemy, carried a great social stigma for the Persians, and it was an act that Xerxes was said to have deeply regretted afterwards. Leonidas' body was later cut down and returned to the Spartans, where he was buried with full honours.
"Ω ΞΕΙΝ' ΑΓΓΕΛΛΕΙΝ ΛΑΚΕΔΑΙΜΟΝΙΟΙΣ ΟΤΙ ΤΗΔΕ ΚΕΙΜΕΘΑ ΤΟΙΣ ΚΕΙΝΩΝ ΡΗΜΑΣΙ ΠΕΙΘΟΜΕΝΟΙ"
- (O xein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti täde)
- (keimetha tois keinon rhämasi peithomenoi.)
Which to keep the poetic context can be translated as:
- Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
- that here, obedient to their laws, we lie
or more literally as:
- Oh foreigner, tell the Lacedaemonians
- that here we lie, obeying their words.
Another translation (by Michael Dodson, 1951) captures the spirit of enduring service to the state which was taught to all Spartan warriors:
- Friend, tell the Spartans that on this hill we lie obedient to them still.
Frank Miller, in his comic series 300, translated it still differently:
- Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
- That here, by Spartan law, we lie
While a tactical victory for the Persians, the enormous casualties caused by almost a thousand Greek soldiers was a significant blow to the Persian army. Likewise, it significantly boosted the resolve of the Greeks to face the Persian onslaught. The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a draw, whereupon the Greek (or more accurately, Athenian) navy retreated. The Persians had control of the Aegean Sea and all of Greece as far south as Attica; the Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese, while Xerxes sacked Athens, whose inhabitants had already fled to Salamis Island. In September the Greeks defeated the Persians at the naval Battle of Salamis, which led to the rapid retreat of Xerxes. The remaining Persian army, left under the charge of Mardonius, was defeated in the Battle of Plataea by a combined Greek army again led by the Spartans, under the regent Pausanias.
The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, has it that Sparta consulted the Oracle at Delphi before setting out to meet the Persian army. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy in hexameter verse:
- O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
- Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
- Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
- Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
- He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
- Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is naught that shall stay him,
- Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.
In essence, the Oracle's warning was that either Sparta would be conquered and left in ruins, or one of her two hereditary kings must sacrifice his life to save her.
This battle, along with Sogdian Rock and similar actions, is used in military academies around the world to show how a small group of well-trained and well-led soldiers can have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers. It is worth noting also that the effectiveness of the Greeks against such a vastly larger army was due in no small part to the battlefield itself. Had this battle been fought on an open field, rather than a narrow pass, the smaller Greek army could have been surrounded and defeated with ease, despite the quality of the Greek infantry. Thus Thermopylae is also regarded as being as much a lesson in the importance of favorable terrain and good strategy as it is in good training and discipline.
A. E. Housman wrote a poem called The Oracles which can be found in his book Last Poems:
- 'Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
- When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
- And mute's the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
- And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.
- I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
- The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
- And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
- That she and I should surely die and never live again.
- Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
- But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
- 'Tis true there's better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
- And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.
- The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
- His fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,
- And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning.
- The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.
Gates Of Fire by Steven Pressfield is a largely accurate telling of the story from the eyes of Xeones, a fictional Spartan warrior who makes his stand at Thermopylae. A movie based on this novel is planned.
The Spartans by Paul Cartledge, published in 2002, includes a fairly detailed description of the battle fought at Thermopylae, the personal stories of Dienekes, King Leonidas and a wealth of information about Sparta.
Ω ξείν... (O stranger) is a poetic book by Dimitris Varos written in 1974.
- Herodotus "The Histories of Herodotus"
- Herodotus Bibliography VII:205
- Herodotus Bibliography VII:222 – Other sources (including Plutarch) claim that Herodotus was biased against Thebans.
- Herodotus Bibliography VII:223